Fake images complicate work of NGOs trying to help Rohingya
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The Burmese army launched a new wave of repression and abuse against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority on August 25, forcing thousands of civilians to flee towards Bangladesh. While the violence is real, many fake images have been circulating online — especially in Turkey, where the government has taken up the cause of this much-persecuted Muslim minority in what some experts say is a bid to further its own religious agenda.
In August, a rebel group from the minority attacked several police outposts. On August 25, the Burmese army responded swiftly and brutally to these attacks with a reprisal campaign targeting Rohingya civilians — burning homes, looting and, according to some reports, murdering civilians. An estimated 87,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
This most recent campaign of violence is far from the first time the Burmese army has targeted this much-persecuted minority, who are denied citizenship in Burma. This time, however, Rohingya activists and their supporters have been documenting the repression with shocking photos largely shared on social media. However, numerous fake and misappropriated images have also been circulating online—especially in Turkey, where the government of President Reccep Tayip Erdogan has taken up the Rohingya’s cause.
That, however, has been causing a diplomatic row with Burma, whose government claims that all of the horror being reported is nothing more than a conspiracy of false information—thus discounting real images of atrocities being committed.
Many readers have reached out to the FRANCE 24 Observers, asking us to write about the plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims. The FRANCE 24 Observers team chose to blur the images in this article: firstly, because of their extremely violent nature and, secondly, to protect the privacy of victims. However, we did include links to the original sources of the images.
Warning: if you click on these links, you’ll see the images in their original format. Most readers will find them extremely shocking.
READ ON THE OBSERVERS >> Rohingya Muslims flee to Bangladesh, their "only chance of survival”
We teamed up with Teyit, a Turkish fact-checking website, to analyse some of the images that have been circulating online.
Old pictures that have nothing to do with the Rohingya
Almost all of the images that we decided to analyse come from two specific Turkish Facebook groups: “Turkey in force” and “The Turkish Renaissance.” Both these pages analyse current events in Turkey through a pro-government lens. As Erdogan and his government have been vocal about the plight of the Rohingya, both Facebook pages have been posting about it.
On August 29, the Facebook page “The Turkish Renaissance” published a series of photos supposedly documenting violence committed against the Rohingya that were shared more than 9,000 times.
We analysed six photos shared on Facebook that supposedly showed injustices carried out against the Rohingya population. Turns out, none of these photos are recent, none of them show Rohingya people and none of them were taken in Rakhine state, where the recent acts of violence took place.
What happened to these bodies floating in a river?
The main photo shows 11 human bodies floating in murky water, their remains attached to the bank with coloured ropes. However, contrary to the indication in the caption, these bodies do not belong to victims of a massacre carried out by the Burmese army on Rohingya civilians. Instead, it is a photo taken of people who died when a ferry sank on October 15, 2016 in the Chindwin River in Burma. Seventy-three people lost their lives in the accident and numerous photos documenting the tragedy were posted on Facebook (examples here and here.)
Not a fleeing crowd, but people playing
in the water
The second photo (bottom left) shows dozens of people in what looks like a river. While the FRANCE 24 Observers team didn’t find a match for this exact photo, a quick search on Google reveals that the body of water shown isn’t in Burma — it’s actually a canal popular with swimmers in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city. That means the people in the image definitely aren’t Rohingya.
Thai prisoners taken for Rohingya
The third photo shows dozens of people lying prostrate on the bank of a river, under the watchful gaze of an armed soldier. However, once again, this image doesn’t show Rohingya victims of the recent violence. The people on the bank are actually a group of Thai protesters who were detained by soldiers after a protest held by the Muslim community in the Tak Bai district in October 2004. Soldiers detained nearly 1,300 men, 78 of whom died during the military action.
Images of children executed at point-blank range are actually from a film
The "Turkey in Force” Facebook page has also been sharing a bunch of photos purporting to show the plight of the Rohingya. One post containing several different pictures (including the misappropriated image of swimmers in Lahore) was shared more than 49,000 times.
Another photo from this series shows four young boys on their knees, seemingly mere seconds from being executed by soldiers.
However, in reality, the people in this photo are all actors — that’s because it is a still from the film "Voces inocentes", which came out in 2004. This full-length feature was inspired by the true story of a little boy trying to survive the horrors of the civil war that ripped the country apart in the 1980s.
The next photo, which shows three boys suffering from acute malnutrition, has been circulating online since at least 2013. It is shared most frequently by users in Pakistan, Yemen and Burma. While the FRANCE 24 Observers team wasn’t able to find the original photo, the fact that it has been kicking around online for so many years means that it definitely doesn’t show the most recent wave of violence in Burma.
A Turkish minister duped by fake images
A high-ranking Turkish official, Vice Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, also posted a series of photos, which he claimed showed the most recent wave of violence against the Rohingya. In reality, none of them did.
One of the goriest images shared online shows a woman reaching, almost tenderly, towards a man’s body. He is tied to a tree, is only wearing his underwear and is dripping with blood, indicating he was probably executed. The photo, which was actually taken in June 2003, won a prize at the 2004 World Press Photo Awards. In reality, it shows an Indonesian woman and her relative, who was killed during the civil war between separatists and the Indonesian army.
Another image (on the bottom right), shows an incredibly chaotic scene: in the foreground, two very young children cry over the bloodied body of a woman. In reality, this photo was taken by French photographer Albert Facelly in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide. The image also won a prize at the World Press Photo Awards in 1995.
The misappropriated images shared by Vice Prime Minister Simsek in a tweet really ruffled the feathers of the Burmese government. In fact, Simsek’s tweet came up in discussions between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma.
A campaign launched by Turkey
Most of the photos purporting to show violence carried out against the Rohingya were shared on Facebook pages that promote the politics of the Turkish government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out in the media extensively about the treatment of the Rohingya in Burma. He has also taken steps to intervene diplomatically.
For many observers of Turkish politics, Erdogan’s sudden eagerness to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya is part of his strategy to bring together his electoral base around a common denominator: Islam.
In Erdogan’s very first statements about the Rohingya, he made multiple references to Islamic morality. For him, the Rohingya crisis is a good political opportunity. He wants to show his dedication to protecting and championing the rights of Muslims, the religious community that makes up his main electoral base in Turkey.
Since a series of diplomatic failures during the Arab Spring, the Turkish government no longer tries to influence foreign governments overtly. Instead, the government’s strategy has been to build a feeling of community with fellow Muslims across the globe.
These days, the pro-government press in Turkey is full of articles about why Turkish people should care about the plight of the Rohingya, according to Turkish political scientist Efe Kerem Sözeri, who spoke with the FRANCE 24 Observers team. Sözeri has seen articles that state that the ancestors of the modern-day Rohingya helped the Ottoman Empire [Editor’s note: The Ottoman Empire is the Turkish empire founded at the end of the 13th century that continued up until 1922].
On social media, Burmese nationalists have taken up Aung San Suu Kyi's claims that the reports about violence committed against Rohingya in Burma are false and are just part of a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the government. Some of these Burmese nationalists even claim that the real victims are Buddhist or Hindu. In summary, a war of truth and falsehoods about what is happening to the Rohingya in Burma is raging on social media.
"There are dozens of truly horrific images that testify to the reality of what is going on"
The preponderance of fake information about the situation is making it hard for NGOs on the ground.
“An example of very unhelpful interventions: From the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, literally not one of these photos is from Rakhine St [Editor’s note: Rakhine is the state where the violence is taking place]”, tweeted Matthew Smith, the general director of Fortify Rights, an NGO that has been working with Rohingya in Rakhine state since 2013.
In the past few weeks, Smith travelled to the border between Burma and Bangladesh to gather testimonies from Rohingya victims as well as proof of serious human rights abuses committed by the Burmese army.
The fact that people are sharing fake photos of what’s going on in Burma isn’t just worrying, it’s downright suspicious. As part of our work as an NGO, we are trying to establish the facts of what is going on here. When people share false information about the situation, it discredits the remarkable work being done by people on the ground to document the ongoing atrocities.
Yes, error is part of being human and I recognise that it can be hard to find the truth amongst everything circulating online. That said, considering the sensitive nature of what is going on in Burma, we should be extremely careful about what we share online.
What’s even more tragic is that you don’t have to look far to see shocking photos documenting what is actually happening here. There are dozens of truly horrific images that testify to what is going on here that have been taken by credible sources.
Look to reliable sources of information
The FRANCE 24 Observers team worked with our Observer, Matthew Smith, to compile a list of reliable sources sharing information on what is happening to the Rohingya in Burma so that readers can inform themselves and avoid all of the misappropriated images circulating online.
By clicking on the links below, you’ll be redirected to the websites of well-known NGOs, which have staff on the ground in Burma. Warning: Some of these NGO websites have shared verified photos of what is going on in Burma that are both extremely violent and disturbing.
- Fortify Rights Facebook page. Fortify Rights has teams on the ground and keeps a logbook on happenings on the border between Burma and Bangladesh.
- Amnesty International Twitter account. Amnesty has staff on the ground in Burma
- Human Rights Watch. Our Observer worked as a researcher for Human Rights Watch for several years.
This article was written in collaboration with Teyit, a Turkish fact-checking website that is a member of the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN) along with the FRANCE 24 Observers. You can check out their article (in English) by clicking here (Warning: Their article contains extremely violent images that have not been blurred.)